Ask Denise: We Can Help, If They Would Only Let Us

Dear Denise,

My grandfather had two heart attacks after fives years of angina and a previous heart attack within that five year period. He is going to be having a double by-pass very soon. He and my grandmother are in their 80’s and live alone in a little two-story house. Two of my aunts live near my grandparents and my third aunt  lives in the next state. My father lives across the country near my sister. Of my three aunts only one is really able to physically help, but when she offers, my grandparents refuse convincingly and she rescinds. My father is unable to leave his home due to restrictions of a new job. This leaves my sister and I.

Both my sister and I are willingly and able to move to my grandparents to help them through the recovery period of the bypass. My sister is able to come for the first month to assist me, because it  would be the most difficult time. My sister and I have lived with my grandparents for years before and know the ropes, but we are being thwarted by all members of the family minus my Father.

A prescription  of peace and quiet was given to my grandparents as part of the post-operative care. It now seems as though my aunts are rallying behind this like a battle cry to keep me and my sister at bay, also obviously because of their grave concern for my grandparents. They have swayed my grandparents to be of like mind. My grandparents also reject mine and my sisters help on the basis that our giving care to them would hinder our lives. Though we both embrace the chance to help two people we love so dearly, I would have to post-pone college for a few months, and my sister would be away from her two young children for a month. However the only people who are fazed by these “setbacks ” are my grandparents. My sister and I are more concerned with the safety and happiness of my grandparents. On a selfish note, it would be sublime for the four of us to live together again, even under these dreary and potentially short-lived conditions.

So now to the core of our problem, how do we convince a stubborn man and three emotional women that having capable hands at close range is not a bad thing? How can we make our relatives see that us being there will not equal a non-stop twenty-something party, but two truly concerned people looking after family members who could really use the help? Our grandparents do dote on me and my sister, and us upon them, but we both understand the gravity of this situation, yet we are still being treated like the young children we once were. How can we make them view us as adults?

We are capable of tending to any at home medical care, cooking, cleaning and driving, which is very important because my grandfather will be incapacitated and my grandmother has not driven in years. (I don’t want to see them isolated.) I also understand that there may be some resentment aimed at me and my sister for intervening where no one else has.

So how do we show we are not trying raise ourselves higher than our aunts, that we just want to help, and that in fact we will need our aunts help to be successful! There are so many emotions running rampant right now and with everyone scattered across the country, short of a conference call, a family meeting is unlikely. We are both very concerned about broaching the topic with my stubborn grandfather because of his fragile condition and we are running out of options in a dire situation.  Any advice you have to give regarding my families situation would be great and appreciated,

Thank you for your time,
Concerned Granddaughter

Hello Granddaughter,

My suggestion: I think you are wise to recognize your grandparents may need more help than they realize. I think it’s okay to make a decision to go. Call your grandparents and let them know you can’t live with yourselves if you don’t come and help. Let them know what day you plan to arrive, that you’ll make arrangements for transport from the airport to their home. Let them know you’ll call when you arrive and are on your way. Let them know you can organize your sleeping space when you arrive.

Then, let them know you’ll call them tomorrow to work together to create a game plan on how you can best help them. Be clear in your goal: You want to help and will stay as long as your help is needed. Be calm as you listen to your grandparents’ response to your decision to come and help. But, be politely firm: You understand that they are okay on their own. You just feel it’s really important to come and be available to help.

After telling your grandparents you’ll be coming to help, call your aunts. Tell them what you told your grandparents: You can’t live with yourselves if you don’t come to help. Your goal is to help your grandparents and your purpose is to work effectively with everyone to make this visit work. Again, be polite but firm.

Then, start a dialogue, which can take place over a series of phone calls, for your game plan about “house rules.” A few house rules may be:

1. Meetings. You meet regularly with your grandparents and aunts (your father can join the meeting over the phone) to review how things are going. What’s working? What needs adjusting? Everyone should have an opportunity to speak their peace and everyone should commit to listening with an open mind. The true commitment from everyone must be to work together to make your temporary stay work.

2. Visit Reviews. Come to an agreement with your grandparents about how long your stay will last. Maybe you’ll agree to stay for at least one week after his return from the hospital. Then, you’ll review the next week’s stay during your regular family meetings and so on.

3. Assignments. Perhaps your grandmother will want to complete certain tasks for your grandfather. She may like to view you both as her back-up. Or, perhaps, she’d like you two to take over during the afternoons so she can nap or run errands. It’s important to be clear about who does what. It’s also important to be flexible as to who does what. And, it’s critical that someone is a designated back-up. Volunteer to grocery shop, pick up prescriptions, make “library runs” for books and videos, clean the house, cook, etc.

4. Meetings with Health Care Professionals. My suggestion would be for both of you to be involved in any meetings with health care professionals. Your role would be to take notes, ask questions, and clarify the information. This is a really important role for both of you.

5. You and your sister should also have your own House Rules. If your sister finds that she misses her children too much to stay beyond a week, then be okay with that decision. You both should be clear about your expectations of each other and your willingness to be flexible for each other.

My last suggestion would be for both of you to bring a journal with you and write about your visit with your grandparents. And, when you can during your visit, ask your grandparents about their lives–their childhoods, how they met and fell in love, their best times, their worst times, their memories during WWII, the Depression, Kennedy’s assassination, etc. Be sure to write down the stories they tell you.

You and your sister are embarking on a very special trip. Let me know what happens!

Stumped by an on-going struggle? Searching for meaning in your journey? You’re not alone!

Family caregivers ask Denise M. Brown, Editor and Publisher,, for her insights and suggestions to their caregiving conundrums. Have a question for Denise? Just e-mail her. Denise will do her best to answer questions within 24 hours.

If you or your care recipient are in a crisis, we urge you to call a health care professional immediately for assistance. Denise only provides general insights about general situations. You should always consult your own lawyer, financial planner, health care professional and other professional advisors for advice specific to your situation.

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